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America’s Collapsing Infrastrucutre

[ 110 ] May 24, 2013 |

It’s no secret that the United States has an aging and increasingly dangerous infrastructure. An embarrassment compared to Europe or Japan, Americans have decided that it is far more important to fight unnecessary wars and give our plutocrats lower taxes than to act like a modern country, creating a functional train system or repairing our vast roadways. Sinkholes are appearing in Washington D.C. and our state capital cities (not to mention everyone’s favorite winter game in Providence called “Pothole or Archeological Dig.” I felt like I was driving in Costa Rica or Honduras in February and March.) In the wake of the horrifying 2007 bridge collapse on I-35W in Minneapolis, the nation did basically nothing. Here’s a good graph on public construction spending:

Last night, a bridge on I-5 over the Skagit River north of Seattle collapsed. Amazingly, no one was killed. Very lucky. It has been 6 years since the Minneapolis disaster. Some states have prioritized bridge reconstruction but not Washington. The bridge at hand was rated as “functionally obsolete,” which is not the same thing as dangerous, but it was very old, built in 1955. State funding to make bridges safe from earthquakes is going away in 2015. Washington infrastructure gets a particularly poor rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers, especially on roads and transit systems. The ASCE said, “Bridges were awarded a C-, in part due to the nearly 400 structurally deficient bridges in Washington State. 36 percent of Washington’s bridges are past their design life of 50 years.” And last night we saw the effects of the state’s lack of infrastructure spending.

It’s also worth noting Andrew Rice’s essay on the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, which will not exactly give you confidence to drive over that thing. Not that you have a lot of choice.

In short, we need a massive federal works program just to keep our infrastructure at a stable, functional, and safe level, not withstanding the need for high-speed rail and other new projects to keep the United States competitive with the rest of the world.

Cocaine Blues

[ 94 ] May 23, 2013 |

Roy Hogsed’s 1948 version of “Cocaine Blues”

Country Music History 101 teaches everyone that Johnny Cash did not write that song, though he did a good version of it. I will save most of my Johnny Cash rant for now, which in brief is that Cash was awesome in the 50s, declined rapidly after about 1963, was a washed-up has been putting out bad album after bad album (see Christgau’s review of 1978′s Greatest Hits Volume 3–”who today would think of ranking him with George Jones, Willie Nelson, or Merle Haggard?”) until Rick Rubin brought him back with 1 great album, 1 fine album, and a few meh albums with a good song or two on them, and that many of the people who think he is the ultimate in country music are in part falling for a marketing campaign.

Which isn’t to say that Cash wasn’t one of the finest artists in the history of country music or that his version of “Cocaine Blues” isn’t one of the very best. But given the centrality of the song to his popular image, it’s worth noting that not only is it not a Cash song, but that he built upon dozens and dozens of earlier versions of this popular song in its various and sundry iterations. The Hogsed version is much closer to how Cash played it than many others.

The Low Wages of Federal Contract Workers

[ 119 ] May 23, 2013 |

Mike Elk has a really great piece on the 1-day federal contract workers strike. It’s simple. First, our government should not be allowed to contract with employers who have a history of labor law violations. Second, all workers toiling for the federal government, whether directly or through subcontracts, should make a living wage. An excerpt:

“I work at Quick Pita in the food court of the Ronald Reagan Building. I work nearly 12 hours every day serving lunch to the thousands of people who work in the building. But I am not here to tell you how hard I work. I am here to tell you that my employer does not follow the law,” testified Antonio Vanegas before a hearing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus yesterday.

Vanegas is one of 100,000 low-wage workers in the Washington, DC area, according to Good Jobs Nation, many of whom are employed by federal contractors or in federally owned buildings like Union Station, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the Ronald Reagan Building. He and about 100 of his colleagues went on a one-day strike yesterday in order to draw attention to their low pay. Despite provisions in the federal Service Contract Act stating that federal contract workers like Antonio Vanegas should make at least the local prevailing wage, up until a few weeks ago Vanegas was making $6.50 an hour–less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and well below the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25. Additionally, Vanegas works 60 hours a week, but claims he receives no overtime pay for hours he works past 40, in violation of the Federal Labor Standards Act.

“There are many workers in the food court who are like me, who don’t make enough to pay the rent, put food on our tables and take care of our families,” said Vanegas in his testimony. “That’s why I’m here and why so many workers like me are on strike today. We want the federal government to be a good landlord and rent prime retail space to employers who follow the law. We want the government to lead by example and guarantee that all workers who do work on behalf of the federal government earn a legal and living wage.”

This strike has made an impact within the Democratic caucus. Whether Nancy Pelosi’s vow to bring it to Obama leads to the president actually doing something about it, I don’t know. But he needs to. Again, raising the working standards of federal workers is something he can do without congressional approval, so there are zero good reasons why he should not act.

Allow me to also note how subcontracting is a malignant plague upon the working conditions of all people. Whether it is the Gap subcontracting in Bangladesh to avoid any responsibility to the workers making its products or the federal government looking to cut costs by outsourcing labor, subcontracting hurts working-class people. There is no good reason why it should exist. Corporations and governments can employ people directly.

Ogallala Aquifer

[ 52 ] May 23, 2013 |

I share the general opinion of many that our industrial food system is in crisis. But I generally disagree as to the real problems. Dislike of something like GMOs (or fluoride in the water for christ’s sake) are rooted in the empowerment of the individual body and the personal as political life we lead–a phenomenon that has had tremendous benefits on our society, but that also redefines much of our lives as a series of consumer choices that I think often obscures both class solidarity and larger structural problems that are not easily solved by personal choice. In the case of food, the waste of basic food-producing resources is I believe is the biggest problem. Take for example soil erosion, as our national bounty flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Or Americans’ increased need to import phosphorous from an unstable African territory quasi-controlled by Morocco. Or the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer. The decline of the Aquifer is a huge threat to our food production on the western Great Plains. With climate change and extreme drought, the long-term sustainability of our water resources for food are questionable at best.

Most of these problems actually do have solutions–we could subsidize land conservation instead of corn production, press for farmers to adapt drip irrigation, create manure recycling programs to reclaim phosphorous. But none of this will happen because of the control gigantic agribusiness corporations like Monsanto have over the majority of senators.

Legally Binding Safety Regulations

[ 8 ] May 23, 2013 |

Stephen Greenhouse on how American retailers like Wal-Mart and Gap are opposing proposed regulatory plans for factory conditions that produce clothing precisely because they might be legally binding and thus mean something. Now they probably aren’t actually legally binding, thanks to our lovely Supreme Court, which in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum decided that the Alien Tort Statute does not apply outside the United States (I wonder how reasonable conservative Sam Alito voted on that!).

John C. Coffee Jr., a professor of corporate law at Columbia University, said American companies generally faced a higher risk of litigation than overseas competitors, largely because the court systems differ significantly. Unlike the system in the United States, courts in Europe generally prohibit class-action lawsuits, do not allow contingency fees for lawyers who win cases and require losing parties to pay legal fees for both sides. Those policies often discourage lawyers and plaintiffs from filing lawsuits.

But Professor Coffee also cited a Supreme Court decision last month that could greatly reduce the ability of overseas factory workers and their families to file lawsuits in United States courts.

“It may be that those retailers who worry about legal liability are pointing to an outdated sense of what liability is for actions taken abroad,” Professor Coffee said. He added that if an accident occurred abroad — for instance, at a factory in Bangladesh — “there is an increasing doubt that the American retailer could be sued in the United States,” because the Supreme Court ruling, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, went far to curb such lawsuits under the Alien Tort Claims Act.

So a Court attempting to recreate the Gilded Age is a huge problem for those who want to create regulations that would transcend national boundaries. Yet for the apparel companies this isn’t good enough. Given that they profit off a system of maximum exploitation, they want nothing more than to say they care without actually caring one iota. That’s why without meaningful penalties for violations, any agreement is worthless. There is of course another alternative–corporations could sacrifice a tiny bit of profit so that 12 year old girls can go to school and workers toil in factories that don’t collapse on top of them. But what kind of a fantasy world am I living in to even dream of such a future!

“This whole fear of lawsuits is a straw man,” said Philip J. Jennings, general secretary of Uni Global Union, a worldwide federation of 20 million retail and service workers, who has negotiated with various retailers to develop the plan and persuaded them to join it. “If these American retailers get 20 lawyers in a room, they start hyperventilating about lawsuits and they’ll have a communal anxiety attack.”

Matthew Shay, president of the National Retail Federation, gave another reason for opposing the Bangladesh plan, saying it “seeks to advance a narrow agenda driven by special interests,” a reference to the labor unions that helped shape the plan and then pressed retailers to sign on.

This as opposed to the narrow agenda driven by another group of special interests to keep Bangladeshi workers dying on the job.

Still, at least we are talking about this now and exposing the barriers to humane treatment of Asian workers by American corporations.

The Kind of Atheist Spokesperson We Need

[ 325 ] May 23, 2013 |

Atheists need more Oklahoma tornado survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, less sexist jerks like Richard Dawkins.

The Worldwide Leader in Unnecessary Profit Taking

[ 32 ] May 22, 2013 |

ESPN is a great corporation. It is ungodly profitable. It creates a mere 43% of Disney’s total operating income. Think about that. All of Disney, including Disneyland and everything else it owns. 43%. But you see, ESPN has recently acquired some lucrative properties, like more SEC football games. In order to show us more Vanderbilt-Kentucky football and build a crazy expensive new set, ESPN has decided to lay off 300-400 employees. This a mere 2 weeks after Disney’s stock reached an all-time high.

Scabs of the New Gilded Age

[ 61 ] May 22, 2013 |

As I talked about yesterday, there’s a 1-day strike today of non-unionized government contract workers who make low wages and who SEIU ultimately wants to organize. In ye olden days of the Gilded Age, the government would use federal troops to bust strikes. The Department of Homeland Security’s response to the strike? Serve as a scab force.

The Phosphorous Crisis

[ 21 ] May 22, 2013 |

I’m glad to know that our addiction to oil from politically difficult places will soon be matched by relying on Western Sahara, an area with a long-standing independence movement against Morocco which nominally controls the area, for the fertilizer for our industrial food system. Hard to see how that could go wrong.

Federal Contracts and Labor Law Violations

[ 30 ] May 21, 2013 |

Today, a one day strike is taking place among non-union, low-paid government workers, some of the nearly 2 million government workers making less than $12 an hour, which I think is an absurdly low wage for a federal employee or someone employed by a government contractor. They are demanding that President Obama do something to improve their plight. I also thought this paragraph about the federal government’s use of contractors who violate labor law interesting:

In September 2010, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that the government had paid $6 billion in fiscal year 2009 federal contracts to contractors who had been cited for violations of federal labor laws. Seven months earlier, the New York Times reported that the Obama Administration was planning to issue a “High Road Procurement Policy” that could “disqualify more companies with labor, environmental or other violations and give an edge to companies that offer better levels of pay, health coverage, pensions and other benefits” in securing federal contracts. But such a move never came to pass; the following year, Obama OMB appointee Heather Higginbottom said in her confirmation hearing that it was not currently under consideration (an administration official told Government Executive afterwards that OMB was “considering the views of Congress, the private sector, and others with respect to possible initiatives and no decision has been made”). Labor and LGBT activists have also called for the Administration to use executive action to bar federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers; Obama so far has not done so.

These are the kinds of things where a president can make a difference outside the congressional approval process. It would be nice to see the president take these claims seriously and improve the labor standards of federal contractors. Given how little President Obama has given organized labor for all it has done for him, this would be a worthy repayment as well.

The Greatest Generation

[ 154 ] May 20, 2013 |

The greatest generation indeed:

The soldiers who landed in Normandy on D-Day were greeted as liberators, but by the time American G.I.’s were headed back home in late 1945, many French citizens viewed them in a very different light.

In the port city of Le Havre, the mayor was bombarded with letters from angry residents complaining about drunkenness, jeep accidents, sexual assault — “a regime of terror,” as one put it, “imposed by bandits in uniform.”

This isn’t the “greatest generation” as it has come to be depicted in popular histories. But in “What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American G.I. in World War II France,” the historian Mary Louise Roberts draws on French archives, American military records, wartime propaganda and other sources to advance a provocative argument: The liberation of France was “sold” to soldiers not as a battle for freedom but as an erotic adventure among oversexed Frenchwomen, stirring up a “tsunami of male lust” that a battered and mistrustful population often saw as a second assault on its sovereignty and dignity.

On the ground, however, the grateful kisses captured by photojournalists gave way to something less picturesque. In the National Archives in College Park, Md., Ms. Roberts found evidence — including one blurry, curling snapshot — supporting long-circulating colorful anecdotes about the Blue and Gray Corral, a brothel set up near the village of St. Renan in September 1944 by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gerhardt, commander of the infantry division that landed at Omaha Beach, partly to counter a wave of rape accusations against G.I.’s. (It was shut down after a mere five hours.)

In France, Ms. Roberts also found a desperate letter from the mayor of Le Havre in August 1945 urging American commanders to set up brothels outside the city, to halt the “scenes contrary to decency” that overran the streets, day and night. They refused, partly, Ms. Roberts argues, out of concern that condoning prostitution would look bad to “American mothers and sweethearts,” as one soldier put it.

Keeping G.I. sex hidden from the home front, she writes, ensured that it would be on full public view in France: a “two-sided attitude,” she said, that is reflected in the current military sexual abuse crisis.

I Recall a Gypsy Woman

[ 22 ] May 20, 2013 |

I maintain that Waylon has the very best version of “I Recall a Gypsy Woman” and I’d be remiss in not mentioning that Don Williams had a big hit with it, but Hank Thompson’s rendition ain’t bad.